Tahrir Monologues: Storytelling the highs and lows of revolution

Sara Elkamel, Tuesday 14 Aug 2012

Disarray, fear, and hints of hope appeared at Left Bank Bistro on Monday 13 August, where the popular theatre project Tahrir Monologues poignantly performed brand new stories from the unfolding revolution

Tahrir Monologues

Tahrir Monologues, which initially emerged as a theatre project that aims to preserves the memory of Tahrir Square at the height of its glory during the January 25 revolution’s epic 18 days, now reveals the struggles of the ongoing fight for freedom.

Sparked by nostalgia, the storytelling project puts raw emotion in the spotlight. In the year following the revolution, Tahrir Monologues told and re-told folk tales about the experiences shared by millions of Egyptians in Tahrir Square. The project is one of many artistic initiatives that sought to creatively capture the tumultuous uprising.

Post-revolution, the Cairo art scene took a notably political twist and artists felt compelled to react to the radical transformations through art. Artists are human, after all, and they were beset with fear of Tahrir fading into memory. Therefore, performing on stages across Egypt and worldwide, the group actively preserved recollections from those 18 days.

“Storytelling was happening naturally throughout the country, at coffee shops,” says Tahrir Monologues founder Shabayek. “People would repeat the same stories with the same passion.”

Shabayek also noticed the media’s failure to capture the intensity of such stories, and she feared they would never go down in history. She “wanted to cherish these stories,” and that’s when the theatre project was conceived.

The storytelling project, which emerged in February 2011, sought to use performing arts to preserve and glorify the memory of Tahrir Square in a period of political tumult and uncertainty. “Theatre allows you to build an intimate relationship with the audience,” explains Shabayek.

In the year following the revolution, the show revealed the euphoric pride, the numbing fear, and surges of patriotism that ricocheted throughout square, tugging at memories held deep by spectators throughout Cairo’s cultural centres, including the Cairo Opera House, Makan and Darb 1718.

But on Monday night, it was different. The performance displayed the fear, the doubt, and the waning of faith that materialised in the months that followed the stepping down of former president Hosni Mubarak.

“Stories of unity and diversity seem like a ridiculous memory now,” explains Shabayek.

For soon enough, what Shabayek and others feared most had happened; Tahrir Square’s utopian dynamics were shattered, with fragments diverging right and left as the political plot thickened. Suddenly there were other stories to be collected, this time more painful than ever before.

This performance at Left Bank featured memories from the battle in Mohamed Mahmoud Street last November, the December clashes at the cabinet sit in, and the February football match massacre in Port Said.

Tahrir Monologues is not interested only in the dry facts. While collecting stories and preparing them for stage, Shabayek seeks the change in the person, not the dates and details. “I ask them what happened to them, not what happened,” insists Shabayek.

Ahmed Abo Shady, one of the Tahrir monologists, admits that the project has evolved with the changing political dynamics. The actor explains that during the initial days of the revolution, it was all very clear: there was a right and wrong. But later, “There were different faces to the revolution.”

In accordance, the purpose of the performance changed, it was no longer to celebrate. On Monday their aim was to trigger emotion, according to Abo Shady.

Sally Zohney, an activist and one of the storytellers in previous performances stands at the door, giving incomers an entrance stamp that read “El-Tahrir.”

As the audience poured into the posh Left Bank restaurant, they looked for the stage. There was none. The performance was held at the farther end of the café, and eager spectators struggled to find a spot to sit.

“The beginning of the revolution, albeit hard and challenging, was happy.” But now, Zohney continues, not everyone’s on the same page…there’s another side to the story.”

Interrupted by a girl asking for a stamp, Zohney grabs her palm. But the girl says “Stop!” and lifts her sleeve, and asking her to put the sign on her arm where her colleagues at work wouldn’t see it, “They are all felool,” she said, using the colloquial term for anti-revolutionary.

Zohney continued with a defeated smile, “It’s different now, after the series of violent events. It’s almost miserable.”

Monday’s performance did not carry the nostalgia of the previous shows, but it was not devoid of hope. Stories of personal connections made amid protests, the recurrence of doubt and the resurgence of dedication were relayed through the string of monologues that played out on the warm summer night.

The performers capture moments of disarray and dissolution, their monologues memorable and succinct.

“I don’t remember his face, I only remember the blood,” one storyteller says.  

As always, the performance was highly emotional, but in contrast to previous acts, there was no elaborate set design. Black and white drawings of icons of Tahrir Square were usually draped behind the performers. Yet last night’s stories were animated enough to keep the audience’s imaginations alive. The performers were fully immersed in the stories they were telling, choking back tears at times. They used colourful language to set the scene for the audience, some of whom had only seen images on TV, and some of whom knew the sights and sounds of protest very well. The splatter of blood from a fallen protestor, the suffocating smell of tear gas, the boom of gunshots; the performers brought all this to the stage.

One monologue told the story of an actor who, afraid for his looks, walked into Tahrir Square with two scarves wrapped around his face, sea goggles fastened on his eyes and a gas mask to shield his from the tear gas. The crowd laughed at the image, revelling in the slightest moment of comic relief. The performer tells the story of his retreat from the frontlines, until he meets an old lady who begs him to go forward. “I experienced a moment of truth, when I felt the old lady’s wrist on my arm, and I sprang to the frontlines, full of rage.”

Raw, unprocessed emotion is unveiled, stories of doubt and uncertainty, and a sense of pure defeat materialised on stage. ”If death is the answer let me die,” and “I hate my fear,” rang through the space.

The performance’s climax came with a story from the Port Said massacre during the football match between Ahly and Masry. “I realised I was not standing on the ground, I was standing on corpses.” The performer was especially powerful in recreating the panic, the helplessness and the shear pain of the tragedy.

The audience stares deeply at the performers, as tears flickered across the room.

“There are incidents that leave a mark, stops that make human beings out of us,” one performer poignantly says.

Sondos Shabayek culminates the performance with a monologue of her own, “Tahrir takes away everything, except for a dream and specks of hope.”

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